What Is The Best Wood For Guitar Necks?

Published Categorized as Buying Guides, Guitar selection

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best wood for guitar necks

Continuing on with this theme of articles about the best materials for acoustic articles, this article will discuss the best wood for guitar necks.

In particular, of course, we are looking at acoustic guitar necks.

The guitar neck impacts tone and playability more than any other component. With so many wood options available, from mahogany to maple and beyond, choosing the right one can be overwhelming. This guide breaks down the unique tonal qualities, stability, and feel provided by various popular neck woods. Whether building your own guitar or looking to customize your instrument with an aftermarket neck, you’ll learn the pros and cons of rosewood, ebony, maple, and more. Discover what top professionals use and get recommendations tailored to your music genre and budget.

Table of Contents

History of Wood in Guitar Making

The choice of wood for guitar necks has evolved over the centuries. Early guitars used whatever materials were available locally, from inexpensive woods like pine to exotic imports like ebony. As guitar-making became industrialized in the late 1800s, makers like Martin, Gibson, and Fender began standardizing their production models around woods that offered stability, strength, and tone.

Iconic Solid Woods

Gibson has long used mahogany for the necks of models like the Les Paul and SG, cherished for its smooth playability and balanced tone. Fender’s iconic Stratocasters and Telecasters usually have maple necks, prized for their brightness and durability. While these woods have carved out a hallowed place in guitar history, they’re not the only options.

Advent of Alternative Woods

Modern guitar companies have brought alternative woods like bubinga, ovangkol, and roasted maple into the mainstream. These offer their own unique visual, tonal, and structural properties. Boutique makers use everything from recycled oak to Ancient Kauri pine harvested from New Zealand swamps. The quest for distinctive, great-sounding tonewood never ends.

While staying true to certain traditional wood choices, today’s guitar makers continue to innovate with modern and alternative woods. This keeps the market vibrant with new sonic possibilities.

Why Care about the Wood of the Neck?

Whether you are interested in making your own guitar, having a guitar custom made for you or simply want to select the best possible guitar then the neck’s wood shouldn’t be ignored.

Though it may not be as critical tonally as the body and bridge of the guitar and may not be as critical for playability as the fretboard material is, it is a crucial component for the structure of the guitar.

This is particularly the case for steel string acoustics where the tension of the strings can put a lot of pressure on the neck if the wrong materials are used.

Maple, mahogany, and rosewood are three of the most widely used tonewoods for guitar necks. Major US brands like Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Martin, and PRS rely on these woods to craft their iconic models.

Maple

With its bright tone and clear articulation, hard maple has been a popular fretboard wood since the early days of guitar making. Its strength and stability also make it an excellent choice for necks. Models like the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster typically have maple necks, giving many players a snappy, lively feel.

Maple necks have a dense grain that brings out crisp highs and tight lows. Their brightness pairs nicely with warmer body woods like mahogany or alder. While maple was once prized for its availability in North America, suppliers like Allied Lutherie now import maple from Europe and Asia to meet demand.

Mahogany

The rich, complex overtones of mahogany have made it a go-to for guitar bodies and necks alike. Gibson uses mahogany for icons like Les Paul and SG. Its smooth texture and rounded low-end produce excellent sustain and resonance.

Mahogany necks have a mellow, woody tone that complements spruce and cedar tops. Their stiffness provides stability under high string tension while retaining a comfortable playing feel. Mahogany trees grow throughout the Americas, but mahogany from Congo and Fiji Island is also used for instruments.

Rosewood

With its crisp articulation and overtone-rich voice, rosewood makes an exceptional fretboard material. Taylor and Martin guitars often combine rosewood fretboards with maple necks for balanced warmth and brightness. Bourns and Dalbergia genus rosewoods from India and Brazil are prized for their high density and oil content.

While rosewood looks stunning and sounds spectacular, it can be prone to cracking. The rich supply of quality maple allows most guitar makers to limit rosewood to fretboard accents rather than full necks. Strict international trade regulations also complicate rosewood guitar production.

Choosing the Best Wood

Several key factors go into determining the ideal wood for a guitar neck. Top guitar builders weigh elements like tone, stability, playability, and aesthetics when selecting materials. They also consider environmental factors that can impact wood quality and availability.

Strength and Stability

First off, the neck supports the strings and holds everything together.

So, for obvious reasons, the wood for the neck needs to be strong. A key consideration is finding tonewoods that can withstand the tension of steel strings without warping over time. Hard maple rates very high for stiffness, while mahogany falls more in the middle, with woods like walnut and cherry more prone to changes. Multi-piece laminated necks and reinforced truss rods also boost stability. Even with quality materials, factors like humidity and temperature fluctuations can impact continuity.

Playability and Feel

Secondly, the neck houses the fretboard which is what the guitarist will be most focused on whilst playing and is the most important aspect for playability of the guitar.

Another factor for playability is the size of the neck. This can make a big difference to your playing. There are two ways to think about the size of the neck. Firstly the width of the neck (which determines the width of the fretboard) and secondly, the shape of the back of the neck, which can be a shallower or more deeply curved oval.

Some people prefer a smaller neck or a more narrow neck especially those with smaller hands.

On the other hand a wider neck is more suitable for finger picking – and for those with bigger hands and thicker fingers.

Standard width for a steel string acoustic is around 1 and 3/4 inches (44mm), but 1 and 11/16 inches (43mm) is becoming quite popular these days too. Classical nylon string guitars are usually 2 inches thick (52mm).

Some steel strings can be as wide as 1 and 7/8 inches (47mm) and are usually used for finger style.

The unfinished wood’s smoothness and the neck profile’s shaping significantly affect playability. Gloss polyester and nitrocellulose lacquers create a slick feel that’s fast, while matte urethane finishes feel more textured. Thinner neck profiles with flatter fingerboard radii facilitate faster lead playing, while rounder shapes with fuller thickness suit rhythm chording. Subtle elements like neck joint angles and fret sizes also influence comfort.

Tonality

Finally, the neck plays a supporting role in the tonality of the guitar. It doesn’t really influence the sound of the guitar directly but it can support it by not getting in the way!

What I mean by this is that the neck should absorb as little energy from the vibrating of the strings as possible. This allows the most energy possible to be transferred down the strings through the bridge and into the soundboard.

So finally, the wood for the neck also needs to be hard and dense. If the wood is too soft or flexible it will absorb a lot of energy from the strings which could otherwise be driven into the soundboard.

Dense, stiff woods like maple deliver bright, crisp notes with tight bass, while mahogany produces warmer, richer overtones. The neck’s width, thickness, and shaping also play a role. Guitarists planning to play melodic leads often favor maple for the articulate high-end response. For chunky rhythm chords, mahogany’s strong mids and smooth sustain appeal more.

The Best Wood Choices

So which woods satisfy all of the above requirements?

It’s potentially a bit of a tricky balance finding wood that’s strong, hard and dense but easy to carve.

Mahogany is the most common wood used for building necks for acoustic guitars. It is strong, dense but light and easy to carve. Voila!

Of course, when I say Mahogany it’s not quite that simple as there a number of different species of Mahogany and different woods that are often referred to as Mahogany that may not be. Check this article out if you want to learn more about that.

The two main types of Mahogany used for acoustic guitar necks are American Mahogany and African Mahogany (a.k.a. Khaya).

Maple is often used for electric guitars but not usually on acoustics as it is heavier than Mahogany (though there are a couple of acoustics I’ve seen using maple for the neck).

Nylon stringed acoustics are often made from Cedar. Mahogany is usually harder, stiffer and stronger than Cedar but the relatively lower tension that nylon strings produce means that a nylon string guitar doesn’t require as much strength.

Steel string acoustics usually also have a truss rod (a steel rod) running through their necks. This adds additional strength against the tension of the strings.

Cost and Availability

For guitar manufacturers, selecting neck woods involves carefully considering cost, supply chain reliability, and sustainability. While premium exotic woods can produce exceptional instruments, economic realities often dictate more commonplace choices. Weighing tonewood desirability against availability and affordability is key.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for reading and I hope that you found the information you were looking for.

Do you have any idea of the wood in the neck of your guitar? If so have you played acoustics that use something other than Mahogany? And what’s your opinion on them. Feel free to leave a comment in the comments section below.

Any other comments or questions also very welcome.

To learn more about the woods and other materials use for the acoustic guitar check out my posts below:


Photo Credits

Top Photo by Larry Jacobsen [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

3 comments

  1. “Maple” and “Cedar” are pretty meaningless without qualifiers. Hard maple (sugar maple, acer saccharum) is much harder, stiffer and heavier than soft maple (almost all of the approximately 132 species, including bigleaf and European maple). Hard maple is the usual neck wood, although some bigleaf maple is showing up in acoustic necks. Maple acoustic bodies are usually soft maple. The “cedar” used for classical necks and flamenco guitars is “Spanish cedar”, Cedrela odoratais. It is a hardwood in the same family (Meliaceae) as the mahoganies and Khaya. It isn’t even distantly related to true cedars, nor to the western red cedar used for acoustic tops.

    1. Hey David.

      This seems like a very extensive resource that, if nothing else, is a tremendous labor of love. Thanks ever so much for sharing – hopefully any geeks or non-geeks present can use it for their own research purposes.

      Nate.

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